Despite an outcry from parents and staff voicing concerns about a major change to their elementary school model, Sequim School Board directors agreed on April 10 to a plan that would put Sequim students in grades 3-5 at one school and the district’s youngest pupils at another.
In a 4-1 vote — with board president Eric Pickens against — directors voted to approve superintendent Regan Nickels’ proposal to shift pre-kindergarten through second grade students to Greywolf Elementary, and the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders to Helen Haller Elementary School, starting in the 2023-24 school year.
“This has been on the table for six years; I think the time is now,” Nickels said. “And I understand how challenging it is.”
The district will start forming advisory groups, composed primarily of staff and some parents, Nickels said, as school leaders examine details of how to restructure each building for grade level needs.
“I really believe that what the superintendent is proposing is an attempt to create a better environment for our kids, and that’s what they need,” board director Patrice Johnston said.
Pickens said he was unable to vote for the plan because he perceived a lack of support among the teaching staff.
“As a teacher myself, I do struggle from not feeling more support from staff. I’d like to see more people embracing (this) change,” he said.
“Change is always hard … but the thing is we’re in the 21st century, and sometimes the old alignments don’t work well,” board director Maren Halverson said.
A number of events are being planned to help students and parents with the transition, Nickels noted in a follow-up email on April 11, including principal meet-and-greets, family school tours, grade level events and open houses.
Why make the change?
An elementary school reconfiguration plan was proposed in 2021 by then superintendent Jane Pryne but was subsequently dropped. However, in recent weeks, as Sequim administrators looked to cut an estimated $3.6 million from the district’s approximate $46 million annual budget, the reconfiguration plan was brought back up as a measure to help defer some of those cuts.
Some staffers insisted the cuts at the elementary schools — primarily to teaching positions — could be made without a reconfiguration and that the proposal should be judged on the merits of its benefits to student learning; on Monday, Nickels said that’s a fair assessment, but that she still thought the reconfiguration is a positive move for student learning.
In her Monday presentation and in public budget meetings in March, Nickels outlined several reasons behind the reconfiguration: allowing better staff collaboration at grade levels; better use of grade-specific resources; creating balanced class sizes; better transitions for fifth-graders heading into middle school grades.
“I think that the strong benefit of the early learning development that can happen, along with the fifth grade cohort coming together and the staff collaboration that can happen for each of the grade levels, it needs to begin as soon as possible,” Nickels said Monday.
“This [current] configuration isn’t maximizing the potential we can have.”
On Monday, Nickels said the district’s budget outlook seems comparatively rosier than in recent weeks, as a number of staffers have decided to retire or resign, and initial budget proposals from state representatives and senators have strong asks for public education funding.
Using the district’s remaining $1.3 million ESSER funds, the budget shortfall is closer to abut $1.8 million, Nickels said Monday.
That reality, she said, means she expects the district to cut teaching positions at Sequim’s two elementary schools by two — from 50 to 48 — rather than six, as estimated in recent weeks.
Nickels also said she is open to concerns of parents who currently have first-grade students students at Helen Haller. Because it may be a hardship for those students to shift to Greywolf as second-graders in 2023-24 only to return to Helen Haller the following year, the superintendent said there’s a possibility the district could let some of those students remain at Helen Haller for the 2023-24 school year.
District officials in recent weeks were also looking at changes to its alternative learning program, including a reduction of grade level offerings at Dungeness Virtual School, the district’s online learning system, to just grades 6-12. On Monday, however, Nickels said the district will retain its early grade offerings at DVS.
She also said the district will expand offerings at Olympic Peninsula Academy in grades 4 and 5.
Parent, staffers critical of move
Nearly a dozen community members, speaking online and in-person and including staffers and Sequim High student Ruby Coulson, took the opportunity Monday to speak about — and primarily against — the reconfiguration plan.
Sheri Burke, a third-grade teacher at Greywolf Elementary, read comments she said were representing staff at Greywolf.
“We don’t see the facts of the empirical data to support [the reconfiguration],” Burke said.
She said that teachers learned to adapt quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Change doens’t scare us,” Burke said.
“Changes without a good cause, that worries us. We’ve talked and talked and talked, and we just don’t understand it. We are overwhelmingly not for this.”
Lara Updike, with five children currently attending Sequim schools, said the best predictor of a quality education comes down to the skill set of a teacher. “You don’t gain skills by moving or furniture.”
She added that local students have had enough learning loss in recent years during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We don’t feel the administration is hearing us. It’s clear: the teachers and the parent don’t want this.”
One parent said she felt she and others had been “blindsided by the decision and that “a lot more parents would be behind this if they knew more about it.”
Christine McDougall Danielson, a first-grade teacher at Helen Haller Elementary School, said she’s concerned that the reconfiguration of schools will eliminate remedial reading time the school uses.
Justin Witherow, who has a 6-year-old in a Sequim kindergarten said that, along with expected budget cuts, the reconfiguration won’t help students.
“Everyone I’ve talked to is against it,” he said.
School district psychologist David Updike said he works to create stability for students, and that through his studying and research came to the conclusion that “I’m one-hundred percent convinced this [reconfiguration] won’t help students one bit.”
One audience member asked the board to put the decision to a public vote.
Nickels said she has heard requests for postponing the reconfiguration, but that “I’m not sure we’re going to have a perfect time [for reconfiguration].”
Following the board’s decision, community members formed an online group, Sequim Community Against Realignment (facebook.com/groups/242359741596647) that as of April 13 afternoon had 590 members.
Nickels said she’s proposing district staff use time during the eight remaining Professional Development Mondays – staff collaborative time during late-start Mondays — in the school year to help iron out details, in addition to helping form advisory groups.
“What it’s going to take is some planning and input of people who are affected the most,” she said.
One key element to the change-over, Nickels said, is developing a good plan for transporting students. The district already has a student “transfer” site — the parking lot at the district athletic field — where students board buses for other schools.
“The issues I’ve been hearing about from people revolve around transportation; that’s a real thing,” Johnston said. “I was a working mom with three kids in school. I know what it takes to get kids to different schools at different times, and the anxiety that that can cause. I think those issues are being addressed.
“I’m a big proponent of carpools and leaning on friends and other ways of getting kids to school.”
Nickels said the district would consider starting a “Ready to Ride” program that gives younger students who don’t have experience riding the bus some formal training on appropriate bus behavior.
She said she’s also looking at allowing parents to ride on the bus with their students for the first few weeks, if needed.
The experience of transitioning itself can be a positive one … it can be a moment of students finding things that are exciting and new,” Nickels said. “I think teachers helping provide this is critical.”
The district will also begin scheduling more end-of-year ceremonies at schools to recognize the change-over for those students attending a new elementary school next fall.
“As with many changes, the success of it will depend on everybody who is invested getting behind it,” Johnston said. “I really feel like with the right spirit and the right hope and optimism and effort and … this can be a great thing for our schools.”